ABC’s ‘Downward Dog’ Gets Messaging Right, but How Well Is Its Star Canine Treated?

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4 min read

ABC’s new comedy Downward Dog, which premiered on Wednesday, May 17, tells the story of a young Pittsburgh woman named Nan as told by Martin, her companion dog. According to People, the search for the perfect canine to portray Martin spanned from coast to coast and it was important to producers that the dog be a “rescue mutt,” which we think is great.

The show’s message is undeniably endearing and important, reminding people always to make their dog’s feelings and needs a priority—even when life gets busy. Dog guardians everywhere need this reminder, and since television shows have the potential to reach an enormous number of people, this messaging could have an impact on so many animals’ lives.

We’re grateful for this, but we can’t help but be disturbed by the fact that two trainers credited in the show—Nicole Handley and Sarah Schwaiger—are actually employed by the notorious animal-training company Steve Martin’s Working Wildlife. PETA wrote to the show’s producers to ensure that they’re aware of the facility’s numerous federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violations and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) citations, as well as to find out where Ned is living and how he’s being cared for on the set and when not filming. However, despite numerous follow-ups, they’re remaining mum, and that’s always a worry.

Our concern for Ned’s well-being is far from unwarranted. Steve Martin’s Working Wildlife has been cited numerous times by the USDA for violations of the AWA, which establishes only minimal guidelines for animal care. The business has been cited for locking chimpanzees and orangutans in “night housing” for up to 18 hours a day with no enrichment items, denying animals adequate space, and failing to provide animals with adequate veterinary care, shelter from the elements, ventilation, clean cages, and proper feeding.

We know that Ned was obtained from a shelter for the show, but, allegedly, so were many of the dogs we found living in pound-like conditions at another animal-training compound, Birds & Animals Unlimited (BAU). Dogs at BAU lived most of the time in barren, concrete cages without any bedding, even when overnight temperatures dropped to 43 degrees. This, of course, is no life for a dog. Living conditions and treatment OFF set must always be a part of the equation when it comes to animals used for film and television. 

We’re all now familiar with the disturbing video taken on the set of A Dog’s Purpose that showed an animal handler forcing a terrified dog named Hercules into the waters of an intensely swirling pool. BAU supplied the dogs used in this film. This video and that of the living conditions at BAU are hard to watch, but they give us a glimpse behind the scenes. How could this happen? A Dog’s Purpose was directed by Lasse Hallstrom and produced by Gavin Polone, both of whom are known animal advocates, so it’s clear that even when seemingly well-intentioned folks are working with animals, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be well treated before, during, or after the shoot. So what’s the viewing public to do when a production gets the message right but exploits the very animals it’s hoping to draw sympathy for? 

Film and TV producers must do their part to ensure that life behind the scenes for animals is just as good as the best fantasy life portrayed in the movie, and we urge viewers to demand this from the entertainment industry.

What if Ned does go home with his trainer and is treated like a family member? And what if only positive reinforcement is used? Well, if he likes being on set and isn’t forced to do anything uncomfortable or to spend long hours working—and if he isn’t kept in confinement or otherwise treated differently than he would be at home—this would seem like a win-win situation to us, especially considering that he’s a mutt.

What You Can Do

While we await word from the producers, we encourage viewers to follow in our footsteps by writing to the network and tweeting and commenting at the show to ask where Ned lays his head every night—and how he was trained.

We also urge folks to err on the side of animals when considering the big and silver screens. Unless you know that the dogs, cats, or other domesticated animals used in a film or television show were treated like the companions they are, consider watching something that was unquestionably produced humanely—that is, without animals.

Although Hollywood has come a long way, it has a lot further to go. Until filmmakers and television producers see that using animals who live in neglectful conditions and are subjected to abusive training methods will cost them viewership, things won’t change.

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